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Medavachiya temple as the war was ending, 2009

How Buddhism Supports Violence

I’m a Buddhist, and when I hear a monk saying we should stone Muslims it breaks my heart. My heart breaks for my Muslim friends, and it breaks for Buddhism.

It is curious for an outsider to think that Buddhism could support violence. Of all religions, there is the least room for interpretation. There is no record of kings, there is no description of a chosen people; the Dhammapada is a simple philosophical text which denies the existence of a self at all. There is literally nothing to fight over. The answer is that Buddhism doesn’t support violence. But Buddhist people can.

State Buddhism

From the moment King Ashoka accepted Buddhism, it made the same Faustian bargain as every major religion. The king would support monks and monks would support the king. Buddhism would be preserved through the sangha (monks and community), but the sangha would become a worldly thing, bound to power.

When Ashoka’s children Mahinda and Sanghamitra brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, it then became attached to a race — and plenty of things to fight over. Whereas Buddhism had no Old Testament full of kings and violence, in Sri Lanka one was written.

The Mahavamsa was a chronicle, starting with a mythological visit to the island by the Buddha, the mythological founding of the Sinhala race and a history of the kings and monks of the island. The Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa are one of the world’s longest unbroken historical accounts, stretching from 543 BCE to 1815– over 2,350 years. It is not history but it has been an invaluable resource for historians. In Sri Lanka, however, it is an almost religious document. Like an Old Testament to the more gentle New Testament of the Dhamma, though written in reverse order.

Hence while the Dhamma preserved the peaceful message of the Buddha, it was carried within a culture and a race which was as violent as any other. Like an invaluable scroll, hid in the hilt of a sword.

The State Of Buddhism

Like any Faustian bargain, this has its ethical issues, but you can’t deny that in one regard it has worked. Theravada Buddhism survived. I can read the dhamma, meditate at monasteries, and it has changed my life. The western world has access to wisdom that they can use to pursue enlightenment, or increase corporate productivity.

However, the other side of the bargain was how this information was preserved. It was encoded in very fallible humans and across human history, and that was violent. And still is. The system that preserved the dhamma has also violated it. This contradiction is at the core of my faith.

So, to return to our most recent racist monk, he is definitely acting contrary to the dhamma by spreading ignorance (Muslims are trying to sterilize us), hatred (boycott their businesses) and eventually violence (they should be stoned). This monk’s attachment to an impermanent identity obviously leads to suffering, as the Buddha taught. Even a cursory look through the Dhammapada will tell you that this is wrong.

However, if you look through the Mahavamsa, this is entirely in character. He is representing a caste of priests, representing a race, carrying the dhamma on top of his head but not necessarily opening it.

The Modern Place For Buddhism

But we don’t live in the Mahavamsa or the Culavamsa anymore, or even the Chootivamsa. It is a very different world since 1815 and this culture has to change.

While our Constitution gives foremost place to the Buddha Sasana (effectively the monks), it is not clear what the Buddha Sasana is loyal to. Sri Lanka, or the Sinhala race? The place of Buddhism within modern, democratic Sri Lanka hasn’t really been defined, besides ‘at the top’.

There was an attempt in 2016 to address this at least partly through a Theravada Bhikku Kathikawath Bill. In both cultural and legal ways monks are effectively above the law, even from within their own leadership. This bill tried to bring a way to defrock or convict monks for violations like getting involved in occult practices, engaging in business, obtaining drivers licenses, etc. This bill failed for multiple reasons, including the fact that lay monks distrusted both the religious and political leadership.

So the monks carry along, still living in the Mahavamsa while the rest of the country is supposedly a pluralistic, liberal democracy. This is just another way that Sri Lankan identity hasn’t been defined and older identities chug along under the surface, frequently bubbling up as seemingly nonsensical violence or conflict. If, however, you peel back the layer of what we’re supposed to be and look at what we are, it makes sense.

Sri Lanka is not a Buddhist country. The idea itself is a contradiction. Sri Lanka is a country that preserves Buddhism. Through our monks, through a race and now, somewhat incongruously, through a modern democratic state. The violence comes from people, not Buddhism, but Buddhism is also encoded in the people.

For Buddhism to be preserved into the next thousand years we as people have to adapt. We have to define the place of Buddhism and the Sangha within a secular state. We have to define a Sri Lankan identity that can contain these contradictions without exploding into violence. Unfortunately, this feels like the work of generations. But I guess the Mahavamsa wasn’t written in a day.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. Videos: and podcast:

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